Arts, On Campus

McMullen’s ‘Gateway to Himalayan Art’ Showcases Both Beautiful and Educational Works

Visitors to the McMullen Museum this semester have a chance to travel to the Himalayas in the Rubin Museum of Art’s traveling exhibition Gateway to Himalayan Art. The pieces displayed are not only beautiful, but they are part of the Rubin’s broader educational effort entitled Project Himalayan Art. 

“The whole initiative was to get … students and professors to study or incorporate more aspects of Himalayan art into their curriculums because that’s not usually something that’s taught at the college level,” said Aurelia Campbell, an associate professor of Asian art history at Boston College. 

The exhibition begins with a section that explains common Buddhist symbols and their meanings in artwork, as well as common religious figures depicted in the art. The entire second floor of the exhibition is devoted to how art is used in religious practices and includes a setup of a meditation room in the back, complete with meditative music and small pillows. 

Elena Pakhoutova, senior curator in Himalayan art at the Rubin, explained that the exhibition was curated closely with the Rubin’s education department, as it was intended to be used for teaching. 

“[The exhibition is] meant to create a much deeper understanding … [of a] culture that is very much alive,” Pakhoutova said. “People are still making things like this, and the practices that these objects represent are still very much ongoing.”

In the back room of the exhibition’s first floor, visitors can see step-by-step explanations of how different artworks are created, including sculptures, paintings, and drawings.

“It’s really instructional in a way that, hopefully when people see the exhibition, they come out of it knowing a lot more about Buddhism, rather than just, you know, getting an aesthetic experience, even though that’s obviously part of it,” Campbell said. 

Campbell contributed an essay to the project’s book, Himalayan Art in 108 Objects, which Pakhoutova helped edit. The book serves as a textbook for teaching Himalayan art and culture. The Gateway to Himalayan Art exhibition is another piece of the project and will travel to a number of undergraduate institutions through 2026. 

The Rubin also has an accompanying digital interactive platform that people can visit to learn more about the artwork, to read the essays from the book, or to simply take a second look at some of the pieces. 

Campbell said she hopes students will realize that the practices shown in this exhibition are not dead, or long lost, but rather alive and vibrant today.

“It’s a good exhibition, because it’s historical, but it’s also part of a living tradition,” Campbell said. “I mean, there’s so many Buddhists in the world, many people creating these works of art. It’s not like we’re only dealing with the past. So this [exhibit] presents a really long stretch of history and also a really wide geographic territory.”

When asked which piece was their favorite, both Campbell and Pakhoutova said they could not pick just one. But Campbell said she was in awe of the “Panjaranatha Mahakala” when she visited, while Pakhoutova said she admired the graceful sway of the deity Tara’s body in the tiny statue entitled “Green Tara.” 

“I really hope that people, when they see the exhibition … they come away with an understanding of what Himalayan art is and how it’s been instrumental in cross-cultural exchange,” Pakhoutova said. “I really hope that they understand that this is not something that is kind of ancient and a beautiful gem from the past, but this is something that is very much alive.”

Correction (9/1/2023, 10:48 p.m.): This article previously stated that Pakhoutova wrote Himalayan Art in 108 Objects. It has been corrected to reflect that Pakhoutova helped edit the book.

September 10, 2023